Today’s daf (Shabbat 150a) explores the halachic implications of the verse ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר – “[Refrain] from pursuing your business [on Shabbat] and [from] speaking words [about non-Shabbat] issues [on Shabbat]” (Yeshaya 58:13), and it lists a range of topics that may and may not be spoken about on Shabbat. However, before proceeding to explain some of the examples mentioned in the Gemara, it is important to review the meaning of a key word – פקח.
The word פקח means to ‘open’, and thus the morning brachot includes the blessing of פוקח עיורים – “who opens the eyes of the [temporarily] blind”. Moreover, while the phrase פיקוח נפש is often simply translated as ‘life-saving’, it literally refers to creating an ‘opening’ in a heap of debris to find out whether a person is alive and to thereby try and save their life (see Mishna Ohalot 16:4).
Having explained this, I would like to focus on the list of topics which Rabbi Yaakov bar Idi states in the name of Rabbi Yochanan in our daf, while explaining his words with care: “מפקחין (On Shabbat we may open up [either physically or verbally]) פיקוח נפש (physical areas or personal conversations which are closed but which need to be opened where individual lives may be in danger), ופיקוח רבים (and, [also on Shabbat], we may open up [conversations] relating to the welfare of many people), והולכים לבתי כנסיות לפקח על עסקי רבים בשבת (and, on Shabbat, we may go to synagogues to open up [conversations] about matters of public affairs)”.
Interestingly, given that this teaching is brought in response to the question of what may or may not be spoken about on Shabbat, Tosfot Rid asserts that the example of פיקוח נפש is a scribal error because when life is in danger, all actions as well as all conversations are permitted. However, many other commentaries do not take this position, and thus I have explained the Gemara according to the text that we have, with the term פיקוח נפש referring both to conversations that are opened up for the sake of possible lifesaving, as well as physical areas which need to be opened up for the purpose of possibly saving a life.
What we learn from here is that while there are a range of things that should not be spoken about on Shabbat, there is also a range of things that may – and should – be spoken about on Shabbat, especially topics relating to physical and psychological welfare of individuals, groups of people, as well as matters concerning public affairs.
Naturally, the list of such topics is long and includes, although is by no means limited to, all those at risk from physical, psychological and substance abuse. In fact, a powerful example of פיקוח רבים relates to mental health, and I am incredibly proud of a number of friends who – along with community leaders – helped establish ‘Mental Health Shabbat’ which promoted the ‘opening’ of conversations about mental health in communities around the world.
As mentioned, the Tosfot Rid is of the opinion that the example of פיקוח נפש is a scribal error. However, I believe that by being mentioned in the same sentence as פיקוח רבים and עסקי רבים, what we learn from here is that just as we would rush to ‘open up’ a heap of debris to find out whether a person is alive and to thereby try and save their life even if it is Shabbat, we should also prioritise ‘opening up’ vital conversations – even on Shabbat – which may have a direct bearing on the lives of individuals (פיקוח נפש), many people (פיקוח רבים) or broader issues of public interest (עסקי רבים).